[In the course of his authoritative analysis of the nature and history of Ruskin's late-life crippling depression, Professor Spates describes one of its chief causes — the relationsip with his father. Thanks to Professor Spates for sharing the following with readers of the the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow]

The trouble was this: In the father’s eyes, the remarkable adept he had sired was, always, his “Beloved Fool”: adored, yes; brilliant beyond description, unquestionably; but, finally, never quite on target: writing and lecturing early on things (art and architecture) which, in the final analysis, really were not all that important; later, writing and lecturing on things (political economy) about which he really knew nothing of significance and - in the sorry process — stirring up hornets’ nests of controversy and embarrassing rebuke. The result was a love/hate relationship which could never be resolved. On the one hand, the son desperately needed the approval of the father who so dominated his life; on the other hand, he was furious at that parent for controlling and judging, almost always with reserve or overt disapproval, his efforts to do as he had been Charged: to write brilliant books designed to right the foundering ship of humanity. But what the son could never see was that his parent was consumed by his own subconscious agenda: to be “esteemed” in a way his own father (a father who ended his days shamefully) had never been, an agenda which made him literally incapable of ever bestowing the unconditional love his son so desperately needed: for John James it was enough that highly respected others thought his boy a savant and dazzling: in that light, he could bask as proud parent of a prodigy. Hence, no matter what Ruskin wrote, it was never enough and never good enough. And so he set to work again, hoping that the next effort would produce the much longed for honest praise. Given that it never did, as the years passed, the son’s anger at his sire escalated. The following examples, arranged chronologically and covering more than a quarter-century, make manifest how constant and caustic the “ruinous struggle” was in Ruskin’s mind.

My father and I, he wrote his friend, Lady Trevelyan in July, 1862,

disagree about all the Universe and it vexes him and much more than it vexes me. If he believed in me more, we should get on; but his whole life is bound up in me. And yet he thinks me a fool -- that is to say, he is mightily pleased if I write anything that has big words and no sense in it, and would give half his fortune to make me a member of Parliament if he thought I would talk -- provided only the talk hurt nobody -- and was in all the papers. This form of affection galls me like hot iron, and I am in a state of subdued fury whenever I am at home, which dries all the marrow out of every bone in me. Then, he hates all my friends (except you) [Works 36: 453-54]

Less than a week after is father's death in 1864, he wrote to Dr. Henry Acland:

[Certainly, you] nor with all your medical experience have you ever, probably, seen the loss of father who would have sacrificed his life for his son, and yet forced his son to sacrifice his life to him, and to sacrifice it in vain. It is an exquisite piece of tragedy altogether — very much like Lear, in a ludicrous, commercial way. [Works 36: 470-1]

Related Material


Ruskin, John. Works. Eds. E. t. Cook and Alexander Wdderburn. 39 vols. London: Gerge Allen, 1903-12.

Spates, James L. "Ruskin's Dark Night of the Soul: A Reconsideraion of His Mental Illness and the Imnportance of Accurate Diagnosis for Interpreting his Life Story." Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies New Series 18 Spring 2009): 19-58.

Last modified 1 May 2024